THIS is What is so Worrisome

Fareed Zakaria is one of the more astute observers of American politics. Perhaps because of his familial background in the Middle East, where stability is rare and democratic institutions rarer, he has a focus on the institutions and norms that make liberal democracies possible. I remember being really impressed with his 2003 book, The Future of Freedom.

Last week, he had a perceptive and deeply troubling column in the Washington Post. As he began

Two decades ago, I wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs that described an unusual and worrying trend: the rise of illiberal democracy. Around the world, dictators were being deposed and elections were proliferating. But in many of the places where ballots were being counted, the rule of law, respect for minorities, freedom of the press and other such traditions were being ignored or abused. Today, I worry that we might be watching the rise of illiberal democracy in the United States — something that should concern anyone, Republican or Democrat, Donald Trump supporter or critic.

As he points out, what we think of as democracy is really a marriage of two separate systems: the choice of political leadership by popular vote, and laws protecting fundamental individual liberties from both the government and those same popular majorities. Hence “liberal democracy.” Zacharia notes that in several countries, the two strands have separated, with democracy (in the form of the vote) persisting, but liberty “under siege.”

Here is what I believe to be his most important–and worrisome–point:

What stunned me as this process unfolded was that laws and rules did little to stop this descent. Many countries had adopted fine constitutions, put in place elaborate checks and balances, and followed best practices from the advanced world. But in the end, liberal democracy was eroded anyway. It turns out that what sustains democracy is not simply legal safeguards and rules, but norms and practices — democratic behavior. This culture of liberal democracy is waning in the United States today.

I shared similar concerns in a post just last month. As Zakaria writes, we are now seeing what our American democracy looks like when those norms of democratic behavior and honorable public service erode, and populism becomes demagoguery.

The parties have collapsed, Congress has caved, professional groups are largely toothless, the media have been rendered irrelevant…What we are left with today is an open, meritocratic, competitive society in which everyone is an entrepreneur, from a congressman to an accountant, always hustling for personal advantage. But who and what remain to nourish and preserve the common good, civic life and liberal democracy?

I just finished reading an important book that gives “chapter and verse” on how we got to the place Zakaria describes. American Amnesia was written by eminent political scientists Jacob Hacker of Yale and Paul Pierson of U.C. Berkeley, and it details (as the subtitle promises) “how the war on government led us to forget what made America prosper.” I will discuss the book’s research and conclusions in blogs to come, but suffice it to say that their copious documentation amply supports Zakaria’s observations.

We can turn this around, but time is running out.


  1. Interesting our different takes on Fareed Zakaria’s article. My main fear after reading the article was his noting of the rise in the esteem of the military with the public. Democracy can survive the rest, but the military is the one area that can easily destroy it. I was surprised you omitted that part of Zkaria’s paragraph.

    ‘But we are now getting to see what American democracy looks like without any real buffers in the way of sheer populism and demagoguery. The parties have collapsed, Congress has caved, professional groups are largely toothless, the media have been rendered irrelevant. When I wrote a book about “illiberal democracy” in 2003, I noted that in polls, Americans showed greatest respect for the three most undemocratic institutions in the country: the Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve and the armed forces. Today, the first two have lost much of their luster, and only the latter remains broadly admired.’

  2. “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” – Ronald Reagan, 1981

    I have always believed that Reagan is responsible for the current distrust of all levels of government, federal, state and local. At my age I will probably only see two more presidential elections, maybe three, so I do see time running out to turn this thing around. But for my children and all of the students I have had during my 25+ years of teaching , I will do what I can to make things turn.

  3. ” what we think of as democracy is really a marriage of two separate systems: the choice of political leadership by popular vote, and laws protecting fundamental individual liberties from both the government and those same popular majorities. ”

    “My main fear after reading the article was his noting of the rise in the esteem of the military with the public.”

    I copied and pasted above from Sheila’s blog and Anthony’s comments because I agree with him that these issues cannot be separated today with Trump planning “War Games” for his own personal reasons and pleasure. I wonder about using the term “rise in the esteem of the military” because Trump’s supporters – those masses of the “great unwashed” in most cases – is simply their belief that all problems can be resolved with another war – not actual esteem. My daughter-in-law and I discussed this briefly yesterday; those masses of the “great unwashed” who voted Trump into office will not rush en masse to enlist in the military to please their fuhrer. Will he enact the draft; filling the military with our young men and women? How many of us on this blog have family members we will lose to this action? I have several, myself. We will have no say in this action or in the manner he will invoke to pay for it.

    Was it really the “popular vote” that elected Trump and how will any of our “fundamental individual liberties” be protected, by whom? As Anthony reminded us, “…Congress has caved…”; we are looking at our imminent future being led by tyranny on all levels. How will Trump pay for his “War Games”, guided by his “nuke ’em” solution to all problems? Lowering further the tax rate on the wealthy leaves only “us” to foot the military bill; we have little left in life to be taxed (and can expect no help from our privately owned Congress. I foresee ALL income being taxed no matter how low it is. I also foresee ALL exemptions being removed so that every American will be forced to file annually with IRS and pay whatever tax rate Trump sets.

    “THIS is what is so worrisome” to me; what Anthony quoted as the sum of Mr. Zakaria’s book and column, adding to Sheila’s blog the part the military will be playing in our future under Trump. He can do much damage in four years with full control; look at what he has accomplished during the past 18 months or so just running his mouth and succeeding in his rabble-rousing campaigning – which continues today under the guise of his “Thank You” tours.

  4. The “unwashed masses” certainly helped get Trump elected. But, most troubling to me, were the quasi educated, white, privileged middle class, the “want more for me professionals” who handed the country over to a pack of deplorables. They stand to gain the most by giving what was left of democracy to a man who promised them an even bigger piece of the pie. Of course they saw no problem with Trump’s narcissism, his bigotry, his total lack of ethics and morals. He is one of them… greedy, hypocritical, lying and cheating, the pussy grabber and the sorry excuse of women who want to get grabbed. Turn this around? Really?

  5. Both parties did not collapse. One resisted an outsider and won the popular vote with a.candidate who has been a member since her first vote.

    The other party? Not so much…

  6. Anthony is wise in pointing out Sheila’s omission. Reagan was simply a stooge of the secret government operating behind him, but several of the presidents after WWII, discussed the shadow government operating inside the Beltway.

    When you look at the foundations of society, the organizational structure is basically to carry out the people’s affairs. The power rests with the people. We delegate that power to elected representatives within our government. This is the checks and balances of POWER. Our government uses their granted powers to regulate society (commerce and individual).

    Our government is comprised of legislative, executive and courts. We established a “free and independent press” to hold the government accountable, while the government carries out its duties.

    Most of all, people fear oppression. Our Founding Fathers “revolted” from what they saw as oppression from the British Empire.

    However, if there is another power outside our government structure, a power which actually directs and rules over elected representatives, then what do we have?

    For one, we no longer have a representative democracy. We also don’t have any personal liberties.

    Furthermore, if you wrongly diagnose the problem as the government, and elect officials who attack what little government structure we have left, then what will happen?

    This chapter starts in 3 weeks.

  7. I keep telling myself that Trump has reached to far by his election win. Congress will not give up their own ego quests “all politics are local” to his all consuming need for gratification. Pence the republican God bringer and their chosen, will save their evangelical America from the grips of the forked tongued sinful serpent that almost convinced them to sell their paper money souls. I believe the evangelical America is the vocal group that will turn on Trump first. That will lead to his impeachment, Trump will try to give them the Supreme Court but they will want more. Pence in some ways is just as dangerous as Trump but in a completely different way, and bringing on the end of the world is not a fear but the final religious act they have anticipated for 2000 years.
    All we can do is speak up when we see wrongs, ask questions when we see lies spun before us, and call out the hypocrisy in our nation when we see it.

  8. When only half of eligible voters can be bothered to vote, it seems that most of the electorate doesn’t really care what sort of government it gets. Yes, this has been a long time coming, but Reagan was only the public face of the nihilists. He was not a great thinker, He was an actor playing a role written for him by Roger Ailes, the Koch brothers, and Richard Scaife. They knew they were winning when nobody paid any attention to Iran-Contra.

    Blame government for all of our woes, then take over the government and starve it to the point of ineffectuality and prove yourself right. Meanwhile, those who voted for you cheer you on. In order for a democratic republic to survive, it must be backed by an informed, engaged electorate.

  9. I always thought (along with Jefferson and Madison) that government service was noble. Then came 1981 when Reagan said that “government was the problem.” He was and is wrong, of course, since it is not government but those who run it who are “the problem,” not excluding Reagan, Bush and now Trump. What we are seeing now can be traced to an event ten years earlier, (1971) and is the result of the infamous memorandum sent to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by Lewis Powell (who represented Big Tobacco and later appointed to be a Supreme Court justice via Nixon) in which he outlined the steps to be taken by big business to take over our political process. Helped by such as the Kochs and inane Supreme Court decisions (see Citizens United and others), I think Powell had more to do with our current predicament than Reagan’s erroneous insight ten years later.

    The real problem is corporatism, which comes in many disguises. This Powell-ignited plan is simply to buy the American political process and remake it to suit profit-making rather than service to the people, and if democratic principles confirmed by such as Baker v. Carr present an obstacle, go around them with massive propaganda and big bucks which not only buy fall candidates but dictate primary candidates as well in order to secure total corporate control of America and all of its institutions – my greatest fear.

    Right now we have bucks and principles vying for control, and the bucks are winning. Before going to law school, I took a course in my minor of political science called “Government Regulation of Business.” I now, as I have told my daughter, am sure that the course has since been renamed “Business Control of Government” to properly reflect today’s reality. There may or may not be time to change this accelerating move to plutocracy we see today, but the only way to do it is to change the personnel in our tri-partite form of government, a daunting task given the resources of the corporate monsters but one we must undertake if we are to save what is left of our tattered democracy.

  10. I don’t disagree with any word on this page but when all is said and done I attribute the collapse of democracy to the decline in honouring the most respected human tradition. The truth, whole and nothing but.

    Without respect for truth and accurate knowledge society cannot function.

  11. Gerald,

    You’re right about Regan, Bush, and Powell. But Trump has taken advantage of a different system. It’s deeper and much more disguised. Both the African-American movement and the Feminist movement because of their misperception of this system have made disastrous miscalculations in the past and are still doing it. The major example is the ill-fated Rainbow Coalition of the late 80’s and early 90’s which was a joinder of the top African-American leader and the top feminist leader of that time. That’s why things have gotten so far out of hand.

  12. The African-American leader of the Rainbow Coalition was the Reverend Jesse Jackson and the top feminist leader was Patricia Ireland, the long-time president of NOW [National Organization for Women]. I was fortunate to have had long private talks with Patricia in 1992 and 1996. My long-time companion was the Editor of the NOW Newsletter for North Florida.

  13. Two other sources to consider: One theoretical, is Sheldon Wolin’s “Democracy Incorporated.” It noted these trends toward illiberalism and depoliticization a decade ago. The other is the empirical work by Yascha Mounk, who is exploring the trajectory of illiberal democracy in Europe and the US.

  14. I warned about the effects of the DEEPEST SYSTEM which was also responsible for Bill Clinton’s ill-fated TRIANGULATION STRATEGY, during my three hours of uninterrupted testimony during a closed session of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission meeting in Jacksonville. This was also in 1992, the year Bill Clinton became President.

    Gerald, don’t blame all of this mess on the Republicans.

  15. Leonard,

    You’re absolutely right about Sheldon Wolin, this is from Wikipedia:

    Inverted totalitarianism is a term coined by political philosopher Sheldon Wolin in 2003 to describe the emerging form of government of the United States. Wolin believed that the United States is increasingly turning into an illiberal democracy, and uses the term “inverted totalitarianism” to illustrate similarities and differences between the United States governmental system and totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union.[1][2][3][4] In Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, inverted totalitarianism is described as a system where corporations have corrupted and subverted democracy and where economics trumps politics. In inverted totalitarianism, every natural resource and every living being is commodified and exploited to collapse as the citizenry is lulled and manipulated into surrendering their liberties and their participation in government through excess consumerism and sensationalism.

  16. Marv, please explain what you mean by this statement:

    “Both the African-American movement and the Feminist movement because of their misperception of this system have made disastrous miscalculations in the past and are still doing it. The major example is the ill-fated Rainbow Coalition of the late 80’s and early 90’s which was a joinder of the top African-American leader and the top feminist leader of that time. That’s why things have gotten so far out of hand.”

  17. We were set on this path by, depending on how you look at it, the founders setting up a system that was too robust and has persisted too long, or the founders setting up a system that would not be sufficient to allow us to address modern problems. The fundamental issue we face is that the end game of capitalism is the totalitarianism brought by the concentration of wealth. In the past it has taken the inevitable decline of public institutions by systemic breakdown or calamity to force evolution in our systems, and it appears that will be the case again. We are living in the end times of this system as we see our lottery economy and its winners push us toward a period of uncomfortable tyranny which will be followed by collapse and the inevitable evolution or revolution toward something else. The timing of this is unpredictable and could come rather suddenly in our lifetimes or could take generations.

    The interesting thing is that this is a train wreck that is entirely predictable and not very difficult to understand, but given human nature, preventing it makes turning the titanic on a dime seem like a simple trick. My personal advice is to make yourself happy, and if that means fighting, then fight with gusto. If that means abiding whatever comes, then do so in peace.

  18. Ginny F,

    “Marv, please explain what you mean by this statement…………”

    I will try today, but I need a little more time to organize my response. I need to find the right metaphor to help me communicate this all important point.

    “INFORMATION ANXIETY is produced by the ever-widening gap between what we understand and what we should understand. It is the BLACK HOLE between data and knowledge, and it happens when information doesn’t tell us what we want or need to know.

    In the fourth century B.C., Aristotle observed that a person’s memory of a given item or knowledge was facilitated by associating that idea with another, either in contiguity, in sequence, or in CONTRAST.

    ….apperception, which was first put forth in the nineteenth century….is defined as “a process where new ideas associate themselves with old ones that already constitute a mind.”

    “Information Anxiety” by Richard Saul Wurman (New York: Doubleday, 1989) Front Cover, p. 168

    What is happening to us has never happened before whether in the U.S. or in the rest of the world. That’s why we can’t seem to stop it. Hopefully, I can come up with the right metaphor to help explain our predicament.

  19. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been warned that Senate Democrats are planning to “aggressively target” eight of President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees, aiming to delay as long as possible the confirmation hearings slated to start next week.

    “President-elect Trump is attempting to fill his rigged cabinet with nominees that would break key campaign promises and have made billions off the industries they’d be tasked with regulating,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement Sunday reported by the Washington Post.

    We shall see if the Democrats have the fortitude to dig in their heels. I hope so, I would really like to hear FOX News weeping and gnashing their teeth.

    Interesting article I came across: President-elect Donald Trump on Friday ejected from his West Palm Beach golf course one of his most critical biographers, Harry Hurt III, who had been preparing to play in a foursome with billionaire mega-donor David Koch.

    Trump constantly seems to reconfirm what a petty, small minded vindictive person he is at every opportunity. Trump has managed to get away with insulting Megyn Kelly and others, but David Koch would seem to me a bridge too far even for the Trumpet.

  20. Over it,

    You’re making your calculations based on history and what’s is happening on the surface. We differ only in that my calculations are based on FIRST-HAND observations, not only of the surface but also the sub-surface at the deepest of levels.

  21. Louie,

    ”..but David Koch would seem to me a bridge too far even for the Trumpet.”

    Trump is just letting everyone know who is going to be the boss. Koch is no longer in control. His power came from controlling the “deep system.” And now Trump controls it. Koch is out. So were many of the industrialists in Germany who first backed Adolph Hitler when he became chancellor.

  22. From the beginning of his campaign both parties knew Trump to be totally unqualified for President and both dangerous and unable to even consider much less fix our national challenges. But because they could field no more qualified candidate they decided to glue Pence to him and ride his coat tails.

    It turned out to the surprise of both parties to dovetail nicely with 30 years of Republican ad hominem attacks on Hillary and now we’re here.

    Republicans have no choice but to assume that they can control him despite the mountain of evidence that he’s completely rogue.

    Democrats, having depended on honesty in their campaign, can help Republicans try to control him but mostly they’re limited to just waiting it out and hope that in four years there’s enough left to save.

    So the question is can a united because there’s no choice Congress control an inept rogue President any more effectively than a disparate do nothing Congress controlled President Obama over the last 8 years?

    I have no idea. Germany and Italy and China couldn’t.

  23. Marv – You are right to caution me not to blame all this mess on the Republicans. With Bill Clinton’s triangulation, his luke warm support of labor, his signing off on legislation that permitted the big banks to come into communities across state lines and rough up community banking with their cheaper money, and especially his signature on the repealer of Glass-Steagall which led to bailouts and a near worldwide depression, he was far friendlier to Wall Street than to the working person. I thought his wife would do better, but she lost to a narcissistic buffoon who has Wall Streeters, libertarian nihilists with big bank accounts, and a fascist in his cabinet – so far – and here I thought it couldn’t get worse.

  24. Ginny F,

    Marv, please explain what you mean by this statement:

    “Both the African-American movement and the Feminist movement because of their misperception of this system have made disastrous miscalculations in the past and are still doing it. The major example is the ill-fated Rainbow Coalition of the late 80’s and early 90’s which was a joinder of the top African-American leader and the top feminist leader of that time. That’s why things have gotten so far out of hand.”

    All that I was trying to say is that our only chance in America after the election of Donald Trump is for the women to stand-up and fight back and they can only do that with the knowledge and understanding of the DEEP racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynist, DEVIANT OLIGARCHY through proper INTELLIGENCE SOURCES and that Jesse Jackson, the leader of the Rainbow Coalition, wasn’t for whatever reasons, good or bad, going to take on the DEVIANT OLIGARCHY, especially since he didn’t have the intelligence sources to do so.

    If someone like the fantastic, African-American, Ella Baker had been leading the Rainbow Coalition then the partnership with NOW would have had a better chance to “stem the tide.” She always advocated the need to take on the SYSTEM. But that wasn’t a possibility back in the early 90’s. Now the times are different.

    At the very least, Hillary Clinton should be given credit for firing the first shot even if she was short of the target.

    The battle against the Trump forces as the old saying goes, “is not over, until it is over.”

  25. Gerald, part of Hillary’s baggage was that Bill was her husband and since he did all of those things you mentioned, she must have contributed to them or agreed with them despite the consequences to the country. This was not something she should have been judged by but we all know that it was probably one of the many reasons for her not winning.

    I am just waiting for the day that the orange one shows his true corruption to the world and then sit back and watch the GOP’s head explode by their own con man. Will they have any remorse? Considering their support I doubt it, but I really would like to see them ask for forgiveness for screwing not only the states but surely the world with this disaster about to happen.

  26. ALG, It appears that now even the ethics checkers are being eliminated by those who need it most. (Ethics? We don’t need no stinkin’ ethics!) So, it’s wide open range for that ‘basket of deplorables’. No ethics, no laws that don’t suit ’em, no nothin’ but gubmint by tweet! Ain’t this somethin’? Hurry on back and help us with this mess!

    Why, we’re at the edge of war and he’s not even president for another 17 days! We should be thankful, I suppose, that we still have 17 days!

    Just last week, I heard Jay Cohen on NPR using an appropriate and very descriptive phrase for what has happened to journalism (remember journalism?). He said journalism “has been ripped out by the roots,” and truer words were never spoken!

  27. I don’t understand how “inverted totalitarianism” is different from fascism. It seems to me that fascism, aka “corporatism”, has finally gained the upper hand, at least for the foreseeable future. I find myself thinking a lot lately about the 60 odd years, at the end of the Roman Republic, before Caesar took over as emperor. The Roman senate was entirely corrupt, a series of populists and would be dictators managed to get themselves elected, or placed in power, some with the help of populist political groups, some with military support, more or less disastrously, and usually for very short periods, before they were assassinated. There were gangs in the streets, social order was waning, bread, circuses, and bribery for the masses was the way to achieve or keep power, and the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. Thoughtful scholars wrote essays and poems about the devolution of antique morals and honor. Eventually, the transition from republic to imperium was complete, when Caesar and his army took control, along with a few of his most wealthy friends. During this time, Rome, or rather the wealthy families and business interests of the time, were mostly growing in economic clout – an economic powerhouse that continued to grow under the first several emperors. I see a lot of parallels – although nuclear arms make our situation a lot dicier today We haven’t quite reached the emperor stage yet. But I’m sure that trump, with his penchant for golden rooms, would like to give it a shot.

  28. The Roman Republic went down this way. It’s all in “Rubicon” by Tom Holland. We are just the mirror image.

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